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How Far From a Police State?

by HOWARD LISNOFF

Just how close is the United States to becoming a police state?  The events at the Republican National Convention, where 800 arrests took place, can answer part of that question.  Those arrests dwarfed the 152 arrests at the Democratic National Convention. The history of the U.S. since its emergence as a superpower in the 20th century addresses the rest.

St. Paul, Minnesota served as a testing ground for “riot” control during the Republican National Convention.  Both protesters and members of the media were beaten and jailed without discrimination or consideration of their First Amendment rights to assemble and for the press to report the news.  The great majority of protests were peaceful. Police used sticks, percussion grenades, tear gas, pepper spray and preemptive raids to create the aura of total control of the area around the convention site.  Merely by their appearance in the heavy, daunting gear of S.W.A.T. (Special Weapons And Tactics) teams, that made them seem as figures out of a science fiction movie, could they create fear among those gathered to protest the convention. (Historically, the origin of S.W.A.T. units came from Los Angeles as a response to the black militant organization, the Black Panthers, in the late 1960s.)  One member of the local police described the preemptive raids on the headquarters of one protest group as “awesome.”  Some members of the police in St. Paul used restraint.  One encouraged protesters to “speak your minds.”

None of this rose from the ashes, as the mythological Phoenix, but was developed from policies that have grown up with the emergence of the U.S. as a superpower and now the only remaining superpower.

When anarchists “threatened” the status quo in the early part of the 20th century there were the Palmer Raids.  The activists Sacco and Vanzetti are the most notable symbols of that era, with striking similarities to the anti-immigrant movement of today.  Many unwanted immigrants who were political were deported.

During World War II Japanese-Americans were rounded up and placed in internment camps in the West. The next historical epoch produced Senator Joseph McCarthy and the witch-hunts aimed at those with Leftist beliefs and politics or affiliations.  Suspected Leftists in the government and their associates were hounded relentlessly.  Again there had to be sacrificial lambs, and the federal government found them in Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, both executed as spies condemned for passing the so-called secret of the atomic bomb to an ally, Soviet Russia.  The evidence from the trials of both Sacco and Vanzetti and the Rosenbergs show gross prosectorial misconduct, and in the case of Ethel Rosenberg, no evidence of any wrongdoing!

The era of the 60s and early 70s saw the F.B.I.’s program of counterintelligence named COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program), but its precursor was the unbridled hostility of the F.B.I. and local law enforcement agencies in the Deep South toward activists in the civil rights movement.  Anyone who sided with civil rights activists in communities was subject to the most violent vigilante acts.

Both Nixon and Agnew were understudies to Ronald Reagan in using the government’s police power against protesters.  Reagan had honed his anti-activist credentials as a snitch while president of the Screen Actors Guild.  When assuming the office of governor in California, he immediately went to work against the Free Speech Movement at the University of California’s Berkley campus, vowing to “clean up the mess in Berkley.”

Reagan’s hostility to protesters and the right of free speech were refined when he assumed the presidency.  He gave one of his advisers, Colonel Oliver North of the infamous Iran-Contra affair, the role of using the Federal Emergency Management Agency (F.E.M.A.) in developing guidelines for imposing martial law, suspending the constitution, establishing internment camps and giving the president and F.E.M.A. the sole responsibility of running the government in “emergencies.”  The Miami Herald reported on July 5, 1987 that the director of F.E.M.A., Louis Guiffrida, appointed his deputy, John Brinkerhoff, to deal with the martial law portion of F.E.M.A.’s new policy by initiating a plan to use interment camps to hold militants during the imposition of martial law.  The planned camps were primarily aimed at jailing black militants.

Not a great deal changed in policy, or was enforced, until the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.  The Patriot Act and several presidential orders allowed the government to spy on “dissidents” within the U.S and collect information on ordinary citizens, all in the name of detecting foreign terror suspects.  All that was needed was suspicion in order to be added to the terrorist watch list.  Phone companies were given authority to eavesdrop on ordinary Americans in addition to suspected terrorist groups and individuals. These telecommunication giants were given retroactive immunity in pursuit of these policies of the federal government.

The wedding of the Department of Homeland Security and F.E.M.A, following the September 2001 terror attacks raises serious questions as to the extent a future president could impose extrajudicial policies against protesters. Watch lists, so prominent historically in societies where official political extremism is in control of the government, came as no surprise and have nefarious possibilities in a government that feels threatened by its opponents.

Anyone taking part in legal demonstrations could see the effects of these new police powers at street level.  Protesters were harassed at peaceful demonstrations, arrested, and demonstrations themselves were subjected to intense scrutiny and official harassment.  At one demonstration I attended just prior to the beginning of the Iraq War protesters were forced to march in the streets of New York City behind closely guarded police barricades.  When an inevitable bottleneck formed stalling thousands of protesters, the police moved in and arrested anyone attempting to get around the bottlenecks and barricades.  The routes of protest marches were carefully controlled by government officials, resulting in one march being forced to stop several blocks away from its intended objective at the United Nations.

In a 1995 interview in Z Magazine, Israel Shahak, an Israeli professor of chemistry and a writer said: “The conclusion is that human society is composed of a mass of ordinary people who can become exterminators, but who in their ordinary lives are completely usual people, of a minority which protests, and a minority which plans murders and enjoys murder.”  His conclusions are not much different from those Hannah Arendt reached in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). Arendt focused on the gross political abuses of Stalinism and Nazism. Which direction the U.S. will travel on the road to the further erosion of both the First and Fourth Amendments is perhaps already etched into both official and unofficial policies of the government.

HOWARD LISNOFF is an educator and freelance writer.  He can be reached at howielisnoff@gmail.com.

 

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Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).

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